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The “the” that threw the thing off

Followers of news stories may have been amused to learn recently that a lawyer defending a corrupt U.S. politician (John Edwards, a former senator and one-time aspiring presidential candidate) introduced an argument that calls into question the meaning of ‘the’ in the phrase ‘for the purpose of’. Learners of English, who may struggle with the use of the definite article, may be heartened to know that even native speakers can be at a loss to explain why they use ‘the’ when they do, and what element of meaning ‘the’ introduces to a sentence in contrast to one that does not contain an article, or that uses an indefinite, rather than the definite article.

The Macmillan Dictionary sense of the that applies in a phrase like ‘for the purpose’ of is probably 1a, “used when it is obvious which one you are referring to because there is only one.” But this use of ‘the’ is often hard to distinguish from sense 1b, “used when you are referring to familiar things that people deal with regularly.” Some linguists call these uses of ‘the’ weak definites, because the thing they indicate is not always unique and unitary—but it’s often convenient to talk about things as if they’re unique because no one will be confused about possible others. We say, for example, “I heard about that on the radio,” but if someone else says “I heard that on the radio too,” they don’t necessarily mean that they heard it on the same radio as you did, and this doesn’t result in confusion or ambiguity. If you say “We heard about the earthquake on the radio,” the first the is clearly a 1a—your audience will know you are referring to an earthquake that just happened. The second the might well be a 1b, especially if the constituents of ‘we’ heard the news on two different radios. But whether they did or not, the report of it would be the same.

The arbitrary nature of some of these uses of the can be illustrated in dialectal differences and inconsistencies. There is a contrast in usage among English dialects in phrases like “in the hospital” or “to the hospital” (that’s American-speak) and most other dialects, which say simply “in hospital” or “to hospital.” Is one of these correct and the other not? In fact they’re both correct in their native dialects and there isn’t a good explanation for the difference—it’s just what people say. The non-American versions, without the, are probably more consistent from a larger perspective because all dialects use the same phrases without an article when talking about widely-known institutions that have an implicit relationship with the people who are “in” them or “at” them: in court, in school, at university, at work, at home, in prison. It also seems inconsistent that we say ‘on the radio’ but ‘on TV’; that we listen to the radio but watch TV; and to complicate matters further, there are contexts in which a native speaker would preferentially say ‘on radio’ and ‘on the TV.’

The law that Mr. Edwards is charged with violating defines a contribution to a political campaign as “any gift, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit of money or anything of value made by any person for the purpose of influencing any election for Federal office.” It is alleged that Mr. Edwards knowingly used such money to finance an elaborate cover-up of his affair with the wife of one of his staff. In the trial, Abbe Lowell [Edward’s attorney] argued that the use of “the’’ in the statute means that the secret money given by Edwards’s donors couldn’t be considered a campaign contribution if it was also given for any other reason, such as hiding the affair from his cancer-stricken wife.

The prosecutor’s response to this argument was that it was “not supported by common sense.’’ He also insisted that nothing in the law suggested that Congress had intended influencing an election to be the sole possible purpose of a contribution. Should the law then have read “. . . by any person for a purpose of influencing any election for Federal office”?  Not according to the prosecutor. “To say ‘for a purpose of’ offends standard English construction,’’ he replied, with exasperation.

The prosecutor is right on that point—people do not say ‘for a purpose’ of. For the purpose of being understood, we just say what everyone else says, and we can only hope that our words will not be dissected in a court.

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Orin Hargraves


  • It’s an interesting grey area, Orin. Sometimes a legal interpretation in all its rigour just isn’t congruent with language’s natural fuzziness.

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